Remembering Eugen Jochum - magician

I attended my first concert at the Royal Festival Hall in London (in 1984 I think*) through a bit of luck. Lorin Maazel had been due to conduct the Philharmonia in Beethoven 7 and Brahms 2 but was, as they say, indisposed.  His stand-in was Eugen Jochum: the conductor who had been my early guide to through recordings of the Beethoven and Brahms symphonies. I knew he was, at that time, an eternal guest conductor and so chances to see him in the UK would be fewer as he got older so I made rapid arrangements to go down to London.

Jochum replaced Brahms Second Symphony with Mozart's Jupiter Symphony and switched the running order, I think because the Brahms would have required more rehearsal time.  The hall was packed and orchestra on fine form in those days between the heights of the Muti and Sinopoli eras.

As Jochum, then in his early eighties, walked out to the podium his feet fell with the deliberate gait of a policeman or someone who is wearing shoes that are too big for their feet. He had such a genial smile - a cheerful visage. His podium manner was not at all exaggerated - small movements, a keen attention to the orchestra and an imperturbable rhythm.  The Mozart reading was very much in the central European tradition represented by Bohm, Krips and numerous other conductors who would have no truck with the excesses of either Toscanini or Furtwangler in this music.  It was full bodied Mozart - lithe and full of sparkle.  As the symphony erupted into a contrapuntal ending, which remains breathtaking two and a quarter centuries since it was first composed, Jochum introduced an electricity to proceedings - I don't know how - but the music took on an ecstatic quality.  Curiously though I never heard his Bruckner live, his Bruckner never reached these heights for me - so I was glad to have encountered the sublime in Jochum's conducting

I also recall his brisk no nonsense pacing, something which I had come to value in his readings of Brahms and Beethoven Symphonies for EMI which were being released on the EMI budget label at the time I began getting to know the symphonies.  In what was to be his last Brahms set - with the London Philharmonic - his handling of the symphonies was not that dissimilar to his earlier mono set for DG with the Berlin Philharmonic - the German orchestra sounded better but the recording did not.  The LPO knew Jochum well (not least from his remarkable concerts and recordings of the Haydn London symphonies in the early 1970s).  Who today could attract a full house for concerts comprising only of Haydn symphonies?

The London orchestra coped better I think than the Berlinners with Jochum's exultant coda of the First Symphony which was little short of manic, hurtling through the allegro with so much con brio it was hard not to get caught up in his enthusiasm.  Of course it was his recordings of the Brahms Piano Concerti with Emil Gilels which showed his magical powers at their height.  Jochum distills something so special out of the works that I haven't heard equalled.  I recall reading an account of the recording sessions in a back copy of Records and Recording magazine. Jochum said he enjoyed conducting the Piano Concerti more than the symphonies because there was more mystery in them  Gilels had never played the first concerto in public or in front of an orchestra until these sessions and was unguarded (though not perfect) in it and passionate and fiery in both.  The Allegro appassionato of the Second concerto is one of those great examples of dark side of Brahms.  Gilels and Jochum make it as uncomfortable and intense as Schonberg or Wagner; paced to perfection - played without limit.  In that movement we can hear the febrile genius of Jochum - it burns bright.

It is said that at his first rehearsal with the London Symphony Orchestra for the late 1970s cycle of symphonies (his third on record), Jochum spent the entire first session talking about Beethoven then sent the orchestra home.  The cycle has its moments - though I think the other two - with the Concertgebouw and Berlin orchestras are better.  What marks his Beethoven out is not the fire - it is there but he doesn't have to force it - but more musical qualities and his particular ear for sonorities and balance.  I later went on to prefer the drama of Karajan but Jochum came as a pleasant surprise after his peer Karl Bohm - who's set first took me round the 9 symphonies.

I recall the same tidiness about the Seventh symphony, the same bustle too but also moments of breathtaking stillness and moment.  The transition between Scherzo and Trio in the Seventh Symphony just hung there as the most beautiful sound I'd ever heard an orchestra make: completely transparent sound suspended in the air which faded like a sweet perfume.  As you might expect Jochum wound up the finale of the Seventh to an almost frenzied white heat but unlike the current fashion he didn't just rely on acceleration to provide the force.  It was his ear for how the sound blocks in the orchestra built up.  It was a very fine reading - I wish it had been recorded.

And that was that - Jochum never came to London again - though I have read internet accounts of broadcasts on tour with the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Japan at about the same time which suggest that he was in the midst of an Indian summer. I was glad to catch him even by chance.

If you are interested in conductors of the past, I've written here about Karajan's last concert in London HERE

*Note - 21/11/13

Those lovely people at the Philharmonia (@Philharmonia on Twitter) were able to confirm the date of the concert as 20 January 1986 a little over a year before he died.


Anonymous said…
I too was fortunate enough to be at that concert; the only time I heard Jochum in live performance. I was very pleased when I heard of the substitution (which I discovered only on my arrival at the RFH), as I had always cherished his recordings of Haydn's 99th and 100th with the LPO — has anyone come close to the good-natured grace and elegance of Jochum's inner movements of the 99th? I doubt it. I think it was some time later that I discovered his recording of Brahms' 2nd with the LPO (the end of the finale is utterly thrilling). Of the concert, I can't say I remember the Mozart, but the slow movt of Beethoven's 7th was breathtaking, and beautifully controlled with minimal motion.

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